Bicycle History: A Propeller Bike, Bicycle Baby Cart, Steam-Powered & More Inventions That Didn’t Quite Make It

A bicycle ambulance, a “celebrated” vehicle that rides the rails, a baby buggy attachment, a steam-powered velocipede and, my favorite: a twin-screw, propeller-powered bike! 

These are some of the more creative build-a-better bike inventions that great thinkers and tinkerers came up after the modern-safety bicycle was developed in the 1860s. I found all these stories and more in old newspapers, including one that involves a water bicycle that crossed Niagara Falls. I’m saving story for a future, more in-depth post. Stay tuned.

A bicycle ambulance … and a sad ending

Let’s start with the “new bicycle ambulance,” which is what it was called in several newspaper stories that ran in December 1901. 

It’s actually kind of clever, a combination stretcher and bicycle. The inventor is Hiram L. Getz of Marshalltown, Iowa. The stories say it “can be manipulated by the rider alone without the aid of any other person … It is intended primarily as a means of reaching the injured as soon as possible rather than providing a rapid means of transporting the sufferer to a hospital … To steer the wheel when the stretcher is in use, an elongated handle is clamped to the front fork, extending nearly to the level of the canvas, the operator using one hand to steer the ambulance and the other to steer the bicycle.”

This story – and drawing – ran in numerous newspapers through March of 1902 and then … nothing. The Getz Bicycle Ambulance never caught on. I found Getz’s obituary, in the August 20, 1909 edition of The Bystander, Des Moines, Iowa and it’s a sad one: “Dr. Getz became a victim of the morphine habit several years ago and created a sensation by stabbing himself at the depot platform at West Liberty, fearing being taken back to the Independence insane asylum.”

A bicycle baby carriage

Why not combine a bike ride with taking your baby out for some fresh air? This was the thinking of Fred Genzingler, of Arizona.

“Of course, it will not prevent the policeman and nurse from holding their usual conversation in the park, but otherwise it is an improvement over the old style of baby carriage,” read the December 7, 1901 story in the Daily-News Democrat, Hunitngton, Indiana.

What exactly was going on between the nurse and policeman depicted in the drawing?

Once again, this creation never seemed to catch on. Fred was ahead of his time, so, skip ahead 100 or more years and thousands of moms and dads hook up baby trailers behind their bikes and head out for a ride with their little ones. I think Fred should get some credit, don’t you?

The Coey Railway Bicycle Attachment

The year 1901 seems to have been a big one for bicycle inventiveness. In advertisements in scores of newspapers across the country, C.A. Coey & Company, a Chicago automobile company, boasted of the “Celebrated Coey Railway Bicycle Attachment.” Exactly who celebrated it was never mentioned.

It’s actually, sort of a good idea, if you toss out the very-real possibility of getting squashed by a train. According to the ad, the device “enables cyclists to ride the rails the year through, getting the full use of your bicycle. Fifteen of twenty miles an hour can be made, thus saving time … Entire weight, 8 pounds. Ball Bearing Attached or detached in three minutes. Fits any bicycle made. Telescopes into a small package to be carried on bicycles in carrying cases when not in use.”

I hope the three-minute claim was accurate, as you’d need to disassemble your Coey attachment really quickly when a train came roaring up from behind. Especially if you had your ear buds in.

The Coey Railway Bicycle Attachment never seemed to catch on. An article in the September 21, 1900 issue of The Railway Age titled “Keep Off The Track” called it a “dangerous and lawless perversion of the popular theory that railways are ‘public highways’ … to sell their devices they must persuade men to break the law … It is not likely, however, that the one-sided proposition will find many takers.”

It didn’t. Charles A. Coey went on to manufacture the Coey Flyer automobile, and he was a successful race car driver, balloonist and man about town.

More power!

A short story in the December 7, 1876 edition of the Brooklyn Times Union describes the invention of a Berlin, Germany machinist who built “a steam velocipede, the boiler of which is heated by means of a petroleum lamp, so that to the other dangers of fooling with that vehicle are not to be added those arising from combustion and explosion.”

This unnamed German machinist was also a few years ahead of his times; the invention of the motorcycle is generally credited to two Germans, Daimler and Maybach, in 1885. Wait, two Germans, only nine years after the Berlin machinist’s steam-powered attempt. Coincidence? I think not.

A Twin-Screw Bicycle

This was the headline of a story that ran in the October 29, 1893 edition of The Sun, New York. It told the story of the propeller bicycle invention of Frederick Heller, a Caldwell, New Jersey man who was a “prominent cyclist” and a plumber by trade. Because he had to travel from house to house around town installing gas fixtures, “he set about to devise some scheme that would get him around the ground faster that an ordinary bicycle could be propelled,” according to the story.

Is that the policeman and nurse again?

Heller was inspired by the screw propellers used on steamships and airships and thought, hey, why not put one on a bicycle? His first design had a single screw “driven by a leather belt, which passed round a large drum at the axle of the rear wheel.”

This worked well, but Heller thought two would be better and more powerful than one, and added a second screw. “The propellers used are made of brass and are similar to those used as electric fans,” the article stated, adding that Heller “has only recently perfected his invention, but he says that within the past week he has beaten most of the local riders and some pretty good horses. He has made an application for a patent on his schemes and says he would not sell it for big money.”

The reporter for the Sun got to watch an exhibition of Heller and his propeller bike: “The road was muddy, and the rain poured down steadily, and the cyclist claimed he could not give the device a proper showing. He came down the street, however, at a rattling rate, and the fans made a noise not unlike a miniature windstorm. They revolved so fast, indeed, that a steady stream of water could be seen shooting out from behind, and that, mixed with the mud that the back wheel threw up, made the rider look like a comet, for a trail of mud and water extended for some distance in the air behind him as he whizzed along. Two people in a carriage who were driving in the same direction as the bicyclist, appreciated the fact that something unusual was attached to the wheel, for a shower of the muddy water flew up in their faces as he dashed past, and it frightened their horse so that it looked for a time as if a runaway would occur.”

Interested in unique and fascinating cycling-history stories? Here’s a link to a previous post – the funniest bike story ever!

Here’s the link to my Biking France books (5) and Numbskull.


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